Going to the Pictures: National Library screens Scotland at the Cinema

By Ben Miller | 15 June 2012
A photo from a movie board of a young actor and actress staring at each other
Exhibition: Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, until October 28 2012

In a less than charming fatal black and white throwback, the re-enactment of Mary Queen of Scots – showing the doomed monarch kneeling with her head on a block before an axe makes the prescribed severance in unclean fashion – is believed to be the earliest surviving on-screen depiction of “Scottishness”.

But things get more wholesome than that 1896 clip on show here: from the heather hills of Brigadoon to material secured in something of a coup from this summer’s Disney Pixar movie, Brave, Going to the Pictures gives Scottish cinema a thorough appraisal, including clips from The 39 Steps, Whisky Galore and Gregory’s Girl, all under the thespian gaze of homegrown talents such as Sir Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor.

“Scotland is bursting with film-makers, attracting film crews in search of our landscapes and cities,” says Senior Curator Ruth Washbrook, reflecting on a display remembering visits to the Highlands by the likes of Orson Welles, not to mention Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and a proud legacy of venues of the ilk of the Regal, the 2,000-seater Glasgow “palace” built to satisfy popular demand during the 1930s.

“Stereotypes have been revived with great popular success. Many films mirror how Scots are living today, but just as many continue to screen the old highland myths, luring film fans to the red and tartan carpets of local and international festival.”

Washbrook sees an exciting future for Scottish film, although the visuals here make for giddy reminiscence. The first cinema show, at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh, “somehow missed fire”, according to a critic who observed the audience pick live variety acts over flickering images of dancers, boxers and sailors on the big new screen.

By 1914, Edinburgh had overcome its unpromising start. Forty-three screens had popped up across the city, rivalled by others across Scotland. The country’s first film studio, at Glasgow’s Thornliebank, is recorded as producing silent work The Harp King in 1919, although no copies of it have survived.

Oscars-wise, Glasgow-born Frank Lloyd was the first winner, receiving his first in 1929. The first Oscar for a film shot in Scotland arrived in 1961, when Seawards the Great Ships – “a poetic study of shipbuilding on the Clyde” – won best short film.

Rob Roy also became Britain’s first ever feature film, in 1911, although Gene Kelly and her crew headed back to Los Angeles after failing to find the location they wanted for Brigadoon.

The films on show aren’t bad, either. There are 70 preserved by the Library’s Scottish Screen Archive, adding up to a century-long portrayal of Scotland, rife with local shorts of community life originally screened in neighbourhood cinemas.

They’re accompanied by works made by the Films of Scotland committee, set up to document the nation in 1938, and insights into the equipment and production techniques of film-makers past and president. All in all, it’s an exhibition worth watching.

  • Open 9.30am-8.30pm (1.30pm Saturday, 10am-8.30pm Wednesday, closed Sunday). Admission free. Watch a mini-trailer for the show.

More pictures:

A black and white photo of two glamorous female film stars greeting children
An image of an illustration for a film called Brigadoon featuring two actors dancing
An image of a cartoon illustration showing two farcical men battling as part of a film poster
An image of a film poster showing a young woman in a tartan hat and uniform
An image of a film poster with a black backdrop and white lettering advertising a band with a female singer
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